“We don’t want to share anything with anybody” is what #2 Furman’s head coach Clay Hendrix said on Monday following the Paladins’ hard-fought 17-14 victory over #13 Chattanooga. The win earned the team at least a share of the Southern Conference championship and a clinched entry into the FCS playoffs later this year. Provided that Furman wins against VMI, the Paladins will win the SoCon outright. Despite these successes, the Paladins still have plenty of work to do, particularly on the offensive side and in patching some holes on defense as well.
The victory against UTC came with significant adversity. The Paladins were already struggling on offense in the first half, particularly in their blocking schemes to protect QB Tyler Huff and in opening up running lanes for RB Dominic Roberto. The initial struggle was made even worse when, in the second quarter, Huff was taken out of the game with an apparent shoulder injury. Huff was keen to return to the game, so much so that trainers had to take his helmet away. He would not return to the game, and it was determined that he now faces a “week-to-week” recovery situation.
Luckily for the Paladins, redshirt freshman QB Carson Jones stepped up. Despite some early missed connections to receivers, he found his stride when it mattered most: on the final drive of the game. After a late 67-yard touchdown pass by UTC’s QB Chase Artopoeus, it looked like the Paladins’ perfect SoCon record was in jeopardy. To the awe of both Furman and Chattanooga fans, Jones led the Paladin offense on a nine-play, 50-yard drive for a touchdown to Wayne Anderson Jr. With no timeouts and hardly any time left in the fourth, UTC was forced into a “do-or-die” offensive situation, which led to them being stopped on fourth down, earning Furman the victory.
Despite the win, the Paladins still have yet to earn the SoCon title, but they look to do so this weekend with a win against VMI. The SoCon utilizes a “shared” title system, meaning that the title can be evenly split to a runner up. Despite, winning against VMI will be a rugged peak to overcome. With Huff’s injury, Carson Jones can be expected to get his first career start against the Keydets this Saturday. The Paladins will need to be much stronger passing the ball to defeat VMI or have any chance in the FCS playoffs. Simply giving the ball to Roberto, if former games have proven that running is not working, should be out of the question.
The key to more efficient offensive production will come at the hands of Jones, especially by throwing the ball. Jones is no stranger to efficient passing, as seen in his two-touchdown performance against UTC. But at times, it was not so pretty, with some inaccurate passes that could have fallen into the hands of the defense. In high school in Maryville, Tennessee, Jones had a 76.1% completion rate and 2,175 yards passing with 28 touchdown passes. One can hope that in practice this week, he can better communicate with his receivers to make more accurate passes. The offensive line will also be vital in protecting Jones. VMI will look to employ blitzes defensively to force Jones into mistakes.
Defensively, sacrificing explosive plays will not be an option. Although it happened only twice against UTC, explosive plays could have easily happened far more often, likely resulting in a loss. UTC WRs got behind the Paladins’ defensive backs multiple times throughout the game, but they could not capitalize on this due to inaccurate throws by UTC’s QB Chase Artopoeus. In the FCS playoffs, there will be far better and more accurate QBs than in the SoCon, who should be able to score with a proper deep ball. Against VMI, the Keydets will capitalize on any mistakes the defense makes.VMI enjoys short, accurate “check downs” in the flat or quick handoffs to RB Rashad Raymond. Like every game this season, expect Furman to pressure QB Collin Shannon through relentless speed and most importantly, stop the run and force turnovers.
The Military Appreciation and Senior Day game against VMI will start earlier than usual at 1:00 p.m. Lately, student attendance numbers for the game have been relatively low, so be sure to stick around after the tailgate and watch the #2 Paladins take on the Keydets at Paladin Stadium. Be there, and be loud! Go Dins!